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Is Racism Alive and Well in China?
December 14, 2009 5:27 PM   Subscribe

The New York Times online's Room for Debate blog tackles the issue of race in China.

It's also worth reading the readers' comments on this one.
posted by inara (32 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
But it doesn't address what I should get them for Christmas.
posted by kanewai at 5:56 PM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


God. There's a lot I don't know about China, but I'm both disheartened and a little bemused to be reminded that, all the world over, we keep reinventing our prejudices and racism as history sweeps the old definitions and cultural status of different races under the rug. OF COURSE the Han are in fact intermixed with all of the other ethnic groups in China and near to it's borders (or not-so-near, in some cases) and OF COURSE among the Han, people are immediately judged based on surnames and the look of their skin and assumptions that they might be mixed with other ethnicities. Why would we expect otherwise? It's how it is everywhere else, after all.

This isn't my knowledge base, but I've got to wonder when being "white" really became a monolithic concept. In Europe, everyone (more or less) was "white," by our modern understanding, but more importantly for prejudices they were English, French, Italian, Irish, Polish, Spanish, etc. Or Jewish, which in North America would pretty certainly be "white" but certainly was something different in Europe not so long ago.

And what about North America? Nowadays, if you're "white," you're "white," but that doesn't stop us from subdividing for our prejudicial purposes. What region represent the Caucasian North American? Indiana? New York? Quebec? Oregon? Ontario? Texas?

I'm intrigued by a number of things in the discussion. The first is that Mao tried to eradicate Chinese racism, and the second is any bemusement over the failure of that attempt, as if even in the fear and oppression of a totalitarian program like the Great Leap Forward, deeply held preconceptions could be erased by sheer force of will. The third is that all of the writers are in North America now, and while they are certainly qualified to speak on the subject, I'd be more interested to hear what scholars and professors living in China would have to say on the subject, but I guess we run into a few problems there as well...
posted by Navelgazer at 5:58 PM on December 14, 2009


but I'm both disheartened and a little bemused to be reminded that, all the world over, we keep reinventing our prejudices and racism as history sweeps the old definitions and cultural status of different races under the rug

Well, of course someone with a userid over 20,000 would say that...
posted by pompomtom at 6:19 PM on December 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


What regions represent the Caucasian North American?

Gaithersburg, Maryland, where the National Institute of Standards & Technology retains John PROTEUS, the North American reference Caucasian, in a tungsten cask. The nation's top albologists decant him twice a year to recalibrate the IQ baseline and determine the half time act for the Super Bowl.
posted by Iridic at 6:23 PM on December 14, 2009 [19 favorites]


And what about North America? Nowadays, if you're "white," you're "white," but that doesn't stop us from subdividing for our prejudicial purposes. What region represent the Caucasian North American? Indiana? New York? Quebec? Oregon? Ontario? Texas?

Oh, come on. I don't think the typical "white" person thinks of "white" as being a property of a particular region in the U.S. or North America I mean, come on that's just so absurd. Even the some poorly educated person knows that White people were originally from Europe.
posted by delmoi at 6:24 PM on December 14, 2009


Did you guys know that Sun Yat-Sen (founder of the Republic of China) thought that Han were move evolved because they had less hair?

Then there's the Boxer Rebellion where Chinese martial artists when around beating the crap out of anyone who looked foreign between 1898 and 1901.
posted by delmoi at 6:30 PM on December 14, 2009


delmoi, for one, I'm a little concerned about derailing inara's first FPP right out the gate and making it something about "white" identity, but I just want to clarify what I was trying to say, which is that the idea of "white" being something monolithic I feel was a pretty recent development in culture and that, like with the Han, whites will naturally find subdivisions in which to exercise their prejudices one way or another, and that ancient lineage has little to do with it. It has far more to do with taking divisions as they exist today, at least in Canada and the U.S., and apparently in China as well. My question of what region typifies "white" was a rhetorical device to show that whites, secure for the most part in North America as the "default" race, don't have a cultural baseline for what that race is supposed to refer to other than a vague spectrum of melonin levels.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:38 PM on December 14, 2009


like with the Han, whites will naturally find subdivisions in which to exercise their prejudices one way or another,

Yeah, like red-state vs. blue state. Or something. I don't think you are going to see "white people" trying to divide themselves up based on any kind of lineage basis in North America as we go forward through time. If anything, we are more likely to see "race" become less and less meaningful over time.

In fact, the modern racial construct is really something that was socially engineered in order to provide an excuse for slavery. Obviously if you go farther back you see ethnic groups fighting each other in Europe, or whatever but over time in the west the size of the 'group' gets larger and larger.

That isn't to say people are going to stop categorizing themselves, but increasingly I think you are going to see geographic origin become less and less meaningful over time. I think the idea that we are going to see "white people" start to have opinions of each other based on if they are from LA or Buffalo or something as just ridiculous.
posted by delmoi at 7:00 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


(I think you might see a kind of southern/non-southern kind of thing but I don't think that "white people" are going to view each other as being of a different race or seeing southernness or ruralness as being some kind of heritable thing)
posted by delmoi at 7:02 PM on December 14, 2009


The concept of "white" is interesting because it is unclear where it really comes from. Unlike other racial terms, which have been created by dominant cultures to reduce a variety of distinct ethnicities to easily manageable conceptual groups, the modern "white" is a phrase that has been used, at least originally, as a means of promoting oneself by attaining some sort of prize in a world dominated, at least economically by white people. However white does not mean the same thing to everyone, including white people. While people will generally agree that "black" refers to people tracing ancestry back to certain regions of Africa, regardless of ancient tribal affiliation, white is in dispute. The white English may consider themselves, the French, some Germans, and other Northern Europeans white, but the Irish, Italians, Slavs, and others tend to be referenced as different races. This is slightly relaxed in the U.S. as we at least seem to accept that all people of Caucasian background are white, but people of mixed race are generally thought to belong to the race they most outwardly resemble, hence President Obama is popularly considered to be a "black president" as opposed to a "mixed race president." In this way the "one drop" rules seem to apply in favor of people identifying as minorities, even when their Caucasian background is equally part of their history.

This is probably because white is still associated with privilege. On the one hand this leads the privileged to jealously guard their privilege, not necessarily out of an overt sense of racism but rather out of a desire to prevent dilution of the benefits they current receive. On the other hand, the appearance of social inclusion is a strong motivator so those who do break glass ceilings are encouraged, usually through group psychology rather than direct suggestion, to identify with the part of their heritage that will do the most to promote social good. Hence Obama is black, as is Tiger Woods (recent events aside, he has been identified as a great black golfer despite his asian heritage).

This point of view is of course very western-centric. I am curious to see how the situation with the Han plays out. Is race a different thing in China, or are these ideas truly universal such that Han will become the white of the west while half Han half Uighur politicians and athletes become known as "the first Uighur to..."
posted by epsilon at 7:04 PM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Good idea to have a round-table, as the range of responses cover some of necessary ground to a debate on the subject that a single perspective might obscure, though inevitably it's all a bit shallow given the format.
Was just enjoying Ho-fung Hung's insightful essay on the US-China trade relationship at the NLR and subsequent debate which he joins at the China Study Group blog. There's definitely a lot in his teleological view (I'm probably misusing a big word, but fuck it) of a shift in the entire way the nation and race were framed in the modern era. Certainly when you consider the native notion that China was bound by a shared culture rather than being an ethnic polity. You can see an amazing explicit debate on this in the pre-modern period set out in Spence's Treason by the Book where the Yongzheng emperor actually swaps polemics with some down-home Ming loyalist explicitly addressing whether the a non-Han Manchu such as the emperor and his dynasty could truly hold the Mandate of Heaven.
posted by Abiezer at 7:14 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Greaet post, and great comments on the whole at NYT. I'm impressed to see it took 23 comments before someone from the predictable nationalist crowd came out of the woodwork. My experience is that they usually swamp discussions like this very quickly and effectively.
posted by smoke at 7:25 PM on December 14, 2009


Then there's the Boxer Rebellion where Chinese martial artists when around beating the crap out of anyone who looked foreign between 1898 and 1901.

posted by delmoi at 6:30 PM on December 14 [+] [!]

==================

That's just precious. Next you'll be enlightening us about the Opium Wars, where militant Chinese xenophobes started a war against the British to crush free trade.
posted by fatehunter at 7:37 PM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


great comments on the whole at NYT
Would love it if you could highlight some of the useful ones smoke. Being trying to plough through and my will to live is diminishing.
You've got some moron straight out the gate telling the four Chinese academics invited to write the roundtable that they don't know as much as the non-Chinese commenter because he lives in China and they don't (!), then a fair sprinkling of white people who think China is the most racist place in the world because for once they're somewhere where they're occasionally on the receiving end, some spurious claims about the origins of the Chinese word for Africa and this was about the point I bailed in despair.
posted by Abiezer at 7:58 PM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


'Been trying...' - having a bad typing day.
posted by Abiezer at 7:58 PM on December 14, 2009


An argument can be made that "white" people are from Central Asia... there's still a few of the original caucasians living in western China, complete with blond hair and blue eyes. (And I'm not talking about the descendants of the Lost Legion, either.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:23 PM on December 14, 2009


Previously.
posted by armage at 8:37 PM on December 14, 2009


Well, don't get me wrong, Abiezer, it's not the agora, but there were quite a few articulate and though-out (if not always thoughtful) comments - dunno what NYT standard is usually like, but major news site comments over here are on par with YouTube comments.

I found the documentary-maker's experience with Hakka interesting, and this comment (as someone in a country where the presence of racism is still very rarely acknowledged) interesting too:

"Those of us who are non-Chinese, but interested in cultural dynamics world-wide should appreciate the frank nature in which the commentators here have admitted China's ongoing struggle with intolerance. It's an acknowledgement that the world still struggles with how to square historical notions of superiority with the reality of governance. Moreover, it suggests a modification of the phrase "Race Matters" to now read, "Ethnicity Matters".

The guy talking about a dichotomy in rhetoric (this is just part of his larger comment):

"There's two basic narratives here: government ideology has transformed into this basic belief in openness and progress in an egalitarian society. The nationalist narrative is that there's some external threat against Chinese society."

Also Abiezer, for you:

Comment 11 is incorrect about the etymology of Africa. The Mandarin word is "fei zhou" where "zhou" is the character for island or continent and "fei" is (most likely) just a phonetic reference to the English. The character means "not" and clearly "not continent" is semantically meaningless. It certainly does not make any reference to servitude.
posted by smoke at 9:31 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, don't get me wrong, Abiezer, it's not the agora
Heh. Thanks, I was genuinely getting you to do my homework for me, as I know you're a sensible person and there will have been good stuff there if you said so. I was dismayed at the usual tripe I've heard too regularly. You are my agora explorer and I thank you.
And you're right, that's worthwhile stuff. Though now I'll have to find the interesting-sounding Hakka comment so looks like I'll be in for a jostle through the shabby marketplace of ideas after all.
posted by Abiezer at 9:46 PM on December 14, 2009


This is slightly relaxed in the U.S. as we at least seem to accept that all people of Caucasian background are white,

Ironically, in Russia people from the Caucuses aren't considered white.
posted by atrazine at 9:57 PM on December 14, 2009


Russia is a great place for irony and definitely a prime example of extreme levels of systemic racial division.
posted by epsilon at 10:14 PM on December 14, 2009


You are my agora explorer

This gives me a rather peculiar mental image. Sort of Greek, sort of Hispanic — lots of pink, bob cut, maybe 5 years old. Casts the odd ostrakon, but kind to monkeys. Yeah, that kind of thing.
posted by Wolof at 10:49 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Abiezer, #21 looks like the Hakka documentary comment that smoke mentioned:

I am a documentary film maker. Early this year I was in the Fujian Province of South West China shooting a film on the Hakka people. Readers may know of them from their large communal homes that are now on the Heritage list.
When I asked them about being Hakka - as distinct from Chinese, they almost always told me not to think this, and that they are Chinese before they are Hakka. Yet they spoke Hakka dialect, so different from Mandarin that my professional translator was unable to understand them. This felt like a contradiction to me - but then again, that is so Chinese anyway.


Made me kind of sad reading that, and curious. I want to know more about the people interviewed and why they emphasized being Chinese before being Hakka, like if they had to grow up with that as a mantra constantly drilled into their heads or what. Something about the reluctance to talk about being Hakka (even as they speak in Hakka) just seems off to me but I can't figure out how to articulate the why at the moment.
posted by cobwebberies at 2:11 AM on December 15, 2009


I did see that cobwebberies as I did brave the comments again as promised above. I'm not at all knowledgeable about the Hakka beyond generalities (though there's some interesting stuff in the book I'm currently reading, Revolution in the Highlands: China's Jinggangshan Base Area by the late Stephen Averill where the tension between the upland hakka and lowland 'bendi' Han is enormously significant - see also the punti wars) but your instinct to find significance about their reluctance to assert their Hakka-ness chimes with my own experience elsewhere. Used to work in a mixed Han-Yi area and the Yi people were very coy with speaking about any of their traditional practices as in recent decades they'd come in for such sustained criticism as superstitious, backward and so on.
Another thing I would say about the time I spent really out in the sticks is that my experience there I think supports the idea that racism of the kind described in some of the comments is in great part to do with modern awarenessnesses of new ''others' and having some narrative of Chineseness and race, which in many ways are more an urban and educated phenomenon. While the most isolated communities I worked in had been influenced in very many ways by modernity, with no radio, TV and so on and only rare visits to even the county town (though family working away of course in the great migrant surge) most people had no preconceptions about you as a non-Chinese at all and once they realised you could speak Chinese treated you very much as a person on equal terms. Yet a person treating me like that might trot out some bigoted stereotype about the Yi who lived across the mountain gorge and had a historically tense relationship with the local Han communities (raiding the Han villages for slaves hadn't helped their image!). That's not a theory I've tested at all empirically mind and may well be nonsense.
posted by Abiezer at 2:34 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I want to know more about the people interviewed and why they emphasized being Chinese before being Hakka...

On the other hand, I bet if you asked a Creole speaker if he was a Cajun or an American, he'd say he was an American first, and then a Cajun, and be kind of offended at the question. Likewise the german-speaking populations of Texas and Pennsylvania.

On the other other hand, this may or may not be the case with a Hawaiian or Puerto Rican, depending on their political leanings.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:14 AM on December 15, 2009


On the other hand, I bet if you asked a Creole speaker if he was a Cajun or an American, he'd say he was an American first, and then a Cajun, and be kind of offended at the question.

As a Creole, I must point out, not all Creole-speakers are Cajun .... I'm just sayin' ...
posted by SoulOnIce at 6:27 AM on December 15, 2009


I think you might see a kind of southern/non-southern kind of thing...
I thought you were talking about China, and immediately remembered how my wife was treated noticeably differently in Guangzhou from how she was treated in Beijing. You know - in a restaurant, getting the crappy fish head instead of the good fish head she expected. I won't go into the inedible stuff they put in front of me.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:48 AM on December 15, 2009


I'm a late-20's teacher working with my Filipino wife at a college in Guangdong. I think I can address the racism question better than almost anyone. Let me put it pluntly: there is a staggering amount of racism in China. Even a quick look through any TEFL job board will conform this. At this very moment there is a job opening in a high-paying kindergarten that my wife will almost certainly not be considered for because of the color of her skin. Her accent is more “neutral” than my own mothers. The school is run by two American citizens, though one was born in Beijing.

A few points:

1.My own experience is that the racism in the TEFL field is driven by the assumed racial preferences of students and parents and not the employers, meaning it makes China look worse than it really is by magnifying the worst impulses of customer-students. I think even the administrator who once told me “I don't think our college is ready for a black teacher” was not a racist. He was acting on behalf of what he was assuming students (and parents) felt. This has been the case for every place I've worked. They would hire more non-whites if they thought they could.

2.Anyone talking about early-20th century genetic arguments about Han racial superiority are way off the mark. Really. It's a shallow, but extremely prevalent, racism. With regards to blacks, I think it's a simple issue of narrowly defined aesthetics. The gazillion dollar pan-Asian skin whitening industry does not exist in a void. I would venture to say that most Asians look at dark skin the same way most people look at obesity. Dark black skin might as well be morbid obesity.

3.Concerning non-whites, only Koreans and Japanese really seem to exist on the radar of laobaixing, the common man. A friend told me today that his students couldn't even call the Vietnamese real “foreigners.” Asian-Americans face almost as many employment obstacles as African-Americans, but this is something all the writers don't really know how to address and neither do I. It's in line with being told by a potential employer that my M.Ed from Hong Kong University, one of the top twenty universities in the world, meant almost nothing to them. Any American university would have been better. As per the Philippines, it's just a volcanic hellhole of poverty unworthy of anything but comparison and pity. My best friend, whose accent most closely resemblesGilbert Grape, laughed off my suggestion to study English in the Philippines for a few months like many Koreans do. My students think I'm belittling them when I suggest looking to other countries, like Malaysia, to study abroad in.

4.The most shocking part of it all is how Chinese society, as a whole, is completely blind about what's going on right in front of them. Like gravity, it's difficult to really notice something so universal and pervasive until someone points it out to you. Part of this is political. There's a lot of propoganda about how racist American society is. I once did an English corner at Tsinghua University for graduate law students during the 2008 election. While exlaining the nuances of racial issues in America, a student quipped back “so why do you hate black people?” when I mentioned that I didn't really have any black friends growing up. When I asked her if she would ever date a black man, she said of course not. She didn't find this at all racist.

5.As Kirth mentioned, it seems to be noticably worse the further south you go. Chengdu seems to be the best place we've been to, Shenzhen/Hong Kong the worst.

6.My final point is that at the same school that told me they weren't ready for a black teacher hired my wife a few months later. Most students are a little shocked, if not irritated, when they first have her. They think the school cheaped out and couldn't find a real foreigner. Then she blows them away with the quality of her teaching. They've sense hired another Filipino and now an African-American. Manman lai... things change slowly, but change they do.
posted by trinarian at 9:55 AM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Chromium doesn't spellcheck copied text. Noted. Sorry.
posted by trinarian at 10:02 AM on December 15, 2009


I won't go into the inedible stuff they put in front of me.

Aw, they were probably giving you some sort of delicacy!

Seriously, though, I had to post this article/discussion because when I read it I kind of thought, "duh." My parents grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, and growing up I got used to their dismissive tone when speaking about any member of a Chinese minority group. And no, it's not a matter of aesthetics on TV as one of the readers' comments would suggest--it really did seem like my parents didn't think minorities were worth discussing.

Also, I found the origin of Han Chinese interesting. I used to joke about being 100% Chinese peasant (meaning Han Chinese peasant), but I guess in the grand scheme of things that's no more descriptive than 100% white.
posted by inara at 4:32 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


5.As Kirth mentioned, it seems to be noticably worse the further south you go. .

Actually, I didn't know that. I believe my wife was treated better in Beijing because that's where she's from, and her accent makes that clear to people in Beijing and in Guangzhou. I don't know if a Southern accent would result in being served a substandard fish head in Beijing, but it wouldn't surprise me. As for the way I was treated, in Beijing, I was always with my wife and her family, so I probably benefited from their being locals. In Guangzhou, neither of us were locals, so I was just another Gweilo. And no, inara, that was no delicacy!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:30 AM on December 17, 2009


> On the other hand, I bet if you asked a Creole speaker if he was a Cajun or an American, he'd say he was an American first, and then a Cajun, and be kind of offended at the question. Likewise the german-speaking populations of Texas and Pennsylvania.

Yeah, denying their overall nationality in that manner would be offensive (along the lines of the ever-irritating "So! Where are you really from?"), but that doesn't seem to be the case with the filmmaker here. He does ask people about being "Hakka - as distinct from Chinese," yet that seems more along the lines of asking "What are your experiences being part of this specific group of Chinese people?" rather than implying the Hakka people aren't truly Chinese or that their Hakkaness was paramount to their Chineseness.

I do see where the "even as they speak in Hakka" bit of my earlier comment might sound like I'm insisting on the reverse of "Chinese first, Hakka second," but it was just an expression of how I find the whole "I need to prioritize my identity!" thing weird. Here's a group of people whose cultural heritage goes back for centuries, if not millennia, with a dialect so distinct from Mandarin that even a professional translator can't figure it out, yet they make a point of de-emphasizing all that by dubbing it second to their overall Chineseness. As if they've been trained to think that way, or something. The comment's brief, so for all I know, it could just be a perfectly innocuous assertion of patriotism, but whatever it is just doesn't seem right to me somehow. I suspect it's similar to what Abiezer mentions:

> Used to work in a mixed Han-Yi area and the Yi people were very coy with speaking about any of their traditional practices as in recent decades they'd come in for such sustained criticism as superstitious, backward and so on.

Like their cultural heritage's been denigrated so much that what once might have been a source of pride is now a potential source of embarrassment, if not shame, to the point where the people belonging to it can't even feel at ease talking about their own cultural heritage anymore, lest those unique aspects, that non-conformity, invite further derision or worse. Blerg-inducing, but also curiosity-inducing. I'll have to read up more on all of this sometime.

> Also, I found the origin of Han Chinese interesting. I used to joke about being 100% Chinese peasant (meaning Han Chinese peasant), but I guess in the grand scheme of things that's no more descriptive than 100% white.

Word, inara. I'd also say my parents were just like yours, except they've been fairly neutral about Chinese minority groups (e.g. they'll give me information without editorializing, maybe mention something they saw in a documentary or on their travels). Their attitudes towards American minority groups, on the other hand, aren't the greatest and I do see an echo of that whenever I come across something like part 4 of trinarian's comment.
posted by cobwebberies at 12:08 AM on December 22, 2009


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